Throwback: Interview with Ken Beckett, creator of Crystal Mines

Waaaaay back in 2000, Songbird founder Carl Forhan interviewed the creator and programmer of Crystal Mines (NES) and Crystal Mines II (Lynx), Ken Beckett; and the Lead Level Designer, C. Scott Davis. At the time, Carl and Scott were working on the PC-based expansion for Crystal Mines II called “Buried Treasure,” which later was also published on cartridge for the Lynx. This interview was released on the limited edition CM2: Buried Treasure CD for Windows PC, but never published online—until now.

Enjoy this stroll down memory lane!

1. Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into video games.

KEN:

I was always very interested in computers and video games ever since I can remember. I read a lot of science fiction as a child, so this may have had something to do with it. I remember reading an article in a computer magazine back in the seventies (I was around 10 or 12) about wonderful new computer software called “adventure games”, that would respond to commands with text descriptions of what you “saw”. I still remember being very excited about the idea of typing “climb tree” and “look around” and getting responses like “to the east, you see a lake”.

Needless to say, I spent a lot of time in arcades as they popped up around the country. They became so popular that we had a number of them in the small town in Northeast Georgia where I grew up with Scott. I later purchased a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I (around 1979 or 1980), and immediately started teaching myself how to program. Not long after that, Scott and I talked our school into buying a Model I, and we spent a lot of time working on it – even working on some games, but we never finished any due to a lack of good tools.

SCOTT:

Like Ken, I was interested in games as far back as I can remember, and got into computers and video games right around the same time he did. After we convinced the school (actually our English teacher, of all people) to buy a computer, we spent first one and later two independent study periods basically playing around with the computer and figuring out how things worked. My senior year, I had already earned more credits than I needed to graduate, and I ended up spending half a day working with the computer.

Software and tools were practically non-existant. There were a few text and low-res b&w games (Scott Adams Adventures, Asylum, StarFighter, and the “Big Five” arcade games), but not much else. Programming was either done in BASIC (which we abandoned pretty quickly), or in Z-80 machine language. We had no Assembler at the time, so we had to actually look up the instructions in a little booklet (from Mostek) and enter the hexadecimal codes directly into memory using a debugger called T-Bug and then save the block of memory to cassette tape.

The first projects we worked on, other than a better debugger called DeMon (a DEbugger/MONitor), were games. We came up with ideas for several, actually designed or partially designed a couple, and actually coded a bit of one (called Death Zone).

As Ken said, lack of tools pretty much did us in, and we never actually finished any of these projects. We did, however, learn a lot and had a pretty good time, as well.

Since then, I have continued to be fascinated by not only computers (which turned into my career), but especially by games, game mechanics and gaming theory. I’ve designed dozens of games over the years (computer, video, board and other), but very few have ever actually made the transition from my imagination to any kind of real existance, for various reasons.

Thanks to, and since, Crystal Mines however, I’ve had the opportunity to have input in and create levels for several games (Crystal Mines, Crytstal Mines II, Chips Challenge 2, and now CM2: Buried Treasure).

2. Where did the concept of Crystal Mines come from? What games did you draw from for inspiration?

KEN:

It was based on the BoulderDash game that was available on Atari computers. It’s very common for people to say “Oh, It’s like Dig-Dug”, but it has absolutely nothing to do with that game. The NES version had many items that we just made up (I had input from friends on ideas for the game, especially from Scott), so it was quite a different game from BoulderDash despite being loosely based on it. The Lynx version had many, many more new items, resulting in a very unique game that took good advantage of the Lynx’s graphics capabilities – unfortuntely, this resulted in a game that simply couldn’t be implemented on many other game consoles.

The Lynx version borrowed a few ideas from other Lynx titles, primarily Chips Challenge, which is my 2nd most favorite game for the Lynx (after CM2, of course). My biggest issue with Chips is the grid based nature of the game, which combined with the Lynx’s thumb control often resulted in an unintentional and frustrating demise. I’m proud of the fact that CM2 has smooth non-grid based movement of the robot, thus avoiding this problem. Note that this is also very different from the old BoulderDash game, which also had the simple grid-based movement (that one without even the smooth animation of movement between squares).

On this issue of animation, the NES version was actually rather cool the way it handled this: All of the objects (boulders, etc) in the game are actually fixed into the background bitmap. When they need to move, they are “converted” into sprites which slide to the next square of the grid, and then are converted back into part of the background again. This trick was necessary due to the limited number of sprites allowed on the NES (as on most consoles). The unique hardware of the Lynx eliminated the need for this trick, and also allowed for multiple object layers.

3. How did the original Crystal Mines fare on the NES?

KEN:

Not well, because Nintendo made sure that stores didn’t buy any un-licensed product (illegal anti-trust behavior, but not provable). We sold the game to video rental stores, resulting in about 15 thousand sales, I think. I ended up making about the same amount of money for the hours I put in as I would have at my regular job.

However, as I did the NES game on evenings and weekends, the income allowed me to quit my job and go to work on other games for Color Dreams on a royalty basis. I created the DOS-based development tool for them under contract that they used for all of their other games, and also for the Wisdom Tree games. After about 8 months or so, I started on CM2 for the Lynx – using the NES development tool I wrote as the basis for the level editor.

4. What got you interested in doing CM2 on the Lynx?

KEN:

The Lynx was just an awesome color hand-held machine. I was very excited about it at the time. It’s very sad that it didn’t sell better than it did – even after all of these years, it’s a better piece of hardware than anything Nintendo makes.

My first thought as I looked into the Lynx was what a great version of Crystal Mines I could make for it. I had a lot of ideas already for things that I’d like to add to the NES version of the game.

5. What was it like working with Atari? Were other developers involved in the project, or just you?

KEN:

I was the only one at Color Dreams working on a Lynx game. It was really a sort of experiment. They bought the Amiga based development system for 5K, and I worked on the game at home. I recruited Scott to help design the levels, because I had my hands full writing the game, and knew that I wouldn’t have the time. Anyway, I also knew that he would do a really good job (which he did). Scott recruited friends of his to help out, and I had a few of my friends work on levels, also. Scott took it upon himself to manage the level design work, testing and improving levels that others designed.

6. Scott, how did you get recruited into CM2? What were your responsibilities?

SCOTT:

I got involved with the original (NES) Crystal Mines toward the end of the project. Lacking the superior set of design tools that Ken would later create for Crystal Mines II, making levels for CM was a slow tedious process, at best (on top of which the development system would also crash periodically). Therefore, I only got to do a handful of levels, but it was a great exerience to have been involved in.

Ken and I talked on the phone a bit during this time, and even before there was even a hint of a “Crystal Mines II”, we were already discussing things we’d like to have seen in the game or things we wished we could’ve done differently. Many of these ideas later worked their way into CM2.

When Ken called me up and told be that he was doing a Crystal Mines II for the Atari Lynx, I was terribly excited. I had already seen several games on the Lynx, and there was no doubt in my mind that CM2 could be Crystal Mines the way it was really *meant* to be. I immediately signed on board to design a few levels, and quickly thereafter so did Danny, Joel and Lee (some of who had worked on original CM levels too).

To those of us who had struggled with the NES version, the level design process was an incredible improvement. Ken’s DOS-based level editor made creating levels as easy as selecting elements and dropping them on an empty level. Unfortunately, the nice PC ComLynx cables that you have now didn’t exist back then, so the only way to test the levels was to either have a “Pinky Mandy” development kit or to have a special cable that clipped onto one of the pins of the PC’s UART chip.

However, if you did have one of these cables, you could test/play levels without a development kit, because Ken had written ComLynx level-loading routines right into the CM2 code, as well as the level editor. Thus, I could create a level, dump it to the Lynx and test it right away. We only had one cable though, so the other developers either made levels and then brought them to my house to test them, or would design their levels on my computer.

I got really into designing levels (some would say “obsessed”), and eventually was given the opportunity to take over managing, building and co-ordinating the level designing process with the other level designers, as well. Ken was also very generous in allowing me a great deal of input and feedback on the game itself, and even though there is absolutely no question but that Crystal Mines II is completely Ken’s, I do like to feel that I played a part in helping it end up being the game it is.

Once of the coolest things (to me anyway), was that Ken left all of the ComLynx code in Crystal Mines II, even after it was released. Therefore, it was (is) possible to design a level and dump it right to the commercial CM2 cartridge and play it. Once idea we discussed from time to time, was that we’d like to maybe one day released a package that would let people edit and play new level sets on their existing CM2 cartridges. One huge drawback to this (at the time), was that it was impractical and unrelealistic to expect people to open up their PC and clip a special cable onto a pin of their UART chip.

The idea was virtually dead (except in the back of my mind) for years, and likely would’ve stayed that way too, if it weren’t for you, who not only teamed up with me to work on the project, but also found a supplier for PC ComLynx cables that just connect straight to the PC serial port.

7. How many level designers were there total? How did you communicate with each other, test levels, etc.?

KEN:

Scott and his friends Danny, Lee, and Joel did most of the levels in Georgia – with lots of long distance phone calls between me & Scott. My brother Gabriel designed a few, as did other friends Jim and Ron, but frankly Scott finished up all of their levels for them. I paid all of the level designers $40 per level out of my pocket, so that I wouldn’t have to deal with splitting up the royalties (which I didn’t start getting until a good 9 months after we finished the game).

8. Can you tell us a bit about the hidden comlynx feature? Why was this created, and was it deliberately left in the final code? Did Atari know about it at all?

KEN:

This was something that we came up with to allow the level designers to test levels easily and without a development system. We made special cables that clipped onto the UART in a PC since the Lynx’s COM port was TTL voltage levels. We tried to get somebody to design a circuit to allow plugging right into a PC’s COM port, but this didn’t happen (although such cables are available now).

We deliberately left this feature in the code with the idea of being able to create new levels for the game (as you and Scott are doing now). Atari didn’t have a clue.

9. How many units of CM2 were produced for the Lynx?

KEN:

As I remember, Atari reported about 20,000 units to me in royalty statements, with about half of these being sold overseas. With the number of cartridges still floating around, I sometimes wonder how many were really produced, but I don’t have an exact number.

10. Ken, your name appears right on the Lynx cartridge. How did you manage to get the complete rights to the Crystal Mines brand from Color Dreams?

KEN:

Crystal Mines was always my game – even the NES version was done on a royalty basis, not as an employee of Color Dreams. The Lynx version was the same – although Color Dreams was going to market the game. By the time I had finished the game, Color Dreams wasn’t interested in doing more Lynx games at the time, so I approached them with the idea of splitting the royalties from Atari. They got 3% to cover their costs of the development system and showing a preliminary version of CM2 at the CES show in Chicago (in 1991, I think). I got 12% paid directly from Atari to make things easier.

I saw to it that all copyrights included my name.

It was a lot of fun going into stores and seeing my name on the box, and I especially thought it was cool having it on the cartridges.

11. What became of Color Dreams?

KEN:

The founders of Color Dreams turned their attention to their new Wisdom Tree company, and Color Dreams just sort of slowly faded away, I think. An interesting tidbit of information is that the first Wisdom Tree game, Exodus (sold in Christian Bookstores) is actually my NES Crystal Mines games with some code modifications and new graphics. I allowed Wisdom Tree to do this for a lump sum fee so that they could develop a new game quickly.

12. Do you have any future plans for the Crystal Mines brand?

KEN:

For a number of years now, I’ve wanted to complete a PC version of the game. I ported the Lynx version to Windows about 4 years ago, but haven’t been able to find the time to complete it. The game is fully functional, but needs new graphics, sound, and music, and also needs to be ported to use DirectX as it’s still using WinG.

As recently as May of 1999, I was planning on producing a version of CM2 for Sony’s new in-flight entertainment system for airplanes – but, I’ve changed jobs again and I’m now working 60-70 hour weeks, so this possibility is looking remote. The Sony system would only be on planes doing 12 plus hour international flights, anyway.

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